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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 13, 2003
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Ethical pitfalls and political perils of classroom-based research

Patricia A. Forster
Edith Cowan University
This paper addresses ethical and political dilemmas of classroom-based research. Ethical stances associated with research purpose, informed consent, epistemology, trust and anonymity are discussed. In addition, I touch briefly on the politics of relations with research participants and the politics of institutional life. The paper is a personal account of ethical implications of the conduct of my doctoral study and is the result of critical reflection on the study at its conclusion. The intended audience is doctoral and other post-graduate students who are about to undertake research projects or who are in the midst of a project.


Maurice Punch (1998) writes of the need to draw the attention of fledgling researchers to the ethical pitfalls and political perils of research. As a 'fledgling' about to embark on a classroom-based study for my doctorate, my research supervisor directed me towards obtaining informed consent, preserving anonymity and meeting the authenticity criteria for qualitative inquiry developed by Guba and Lincoln (1989). At the time, the criteria which seemed particularly relevant to my study were that I should negotiate understanding with research-participants (for educative authenticity), all participants should learn through the research (for ontological authenticity) and the research should stimulate future action (for catalytic authenticity). I included a section on these ideals in my research proposal, which was approved by the university authorities and, as Punch identifies for the beginning researcher, I saw meeting the ideals as unproblematic.

However, early in the study I was confronted with ethical/political issues, doubt about how to resolve them, and guilt about my paths of action. The associated emotion and tension escalated in the reporting phase. By reporting phase I mean publication, for my thesis (Forster, 2001) was mainly a compilation of publications; and in compiling the pieces, I critically and systematically reflected on and wrote about the ethical/political dilemmas that I had faced during the study. Such critical reflection at the conclusion of a study is recommended (e.g., Burgess, 1989). It is an important facet of postmodern endeavour (Lincoln & Denzin, 2000), which I understood my study to be. The reflection process included reading more widely the literature on research ethics so that I had a basis on which to critique my research decisions. The discussion in this paper is based on the critique.

My doctoral study involved two phases. The first was a self-study of my own teaching and the second an inquiry in a class of another teacher, a past colleague, where I took the role of observer-participant. I chose the two research approaches because I thought they would allow different insights into teaching and learning. In the paper, I identify the ethical dilemmas that arose in each phase and how they differed between the phases.

My intended audience is fledgling teacher-researchers and other newcomers to classroom-based research. The significance of the paper resides in the contextualisation of ethical principles. I describe ethical principles in relation to specific research outcomes, and go beyond the typical concerns of university ethics committees by considering types of research purpose, relations with research participants and issues with publication. My purpose in writing the paper was that it would allow new researchers insight into a wide range of ethical and political dilemmas associated with classroom-based research.

Ethical pitfalls

Research purpose

A rational purpose is foremost among the ethical requirements for applied social research (Kimmel, 1988). My initial purpose was to understand more about teaching and learning of mathematics, particularly in relation to the use of graphics calculators. This purpose was aligned with the second of the three knowledge-producing purposes or interests proposed by Habermas (cited in Young, 1991):
  1. an interest in control, associated with a positivist self-understanding of the sciences and with the world of work;
  2. an interest in understanding, associated with the hermeneutic sciences and cultural processes;
  3. an interest in emancipation, associated with the critical sciences and progressive social evolution (p. 30).
The first two interests indicate an acceptance of the given forms of the human world: the existing culture and inequities perpetuated in the world are not questioned. In contrast, the third interest employs a critical methodology and "addresses the question of transcending the existent" (p. 31). Furthermore, the three interests are present in each and every human action, to greater or lesser degrees. Some advocate that research in education can only be justified if it clearly has an emancipatory component. Work by Walkerdine (1992) on girls and mathematics and by Zevenbergen (2001) on the barriers to participation in mathematics by children from lower socio-economic groups fit the emancipatory requirement. Moreover, the three interests can be considered as stages in the development of philosophical orientation. In support of this view, Fleener (1995) provides evidence that some teachers have less interest in control and move to exhibit stronger hermeneutic and emancipatory interests in the ways they view teaching, as they gain teaching experience.

So, in the role of teacher-researcher in one of my Year 11 classes, I started on the first self-study phase of my research, and I was principally interested in understanding teaching and learning. Moreover, in this retrospective analysis and in light of the conduct of the study, it seems to me now that my research supervisor was motivated by an emancipatory ethic. He urged me to be self-critical during the fieldwork and more so in the microanalysis of events after the conclusion of the fieldwork. He provoked me into confronting the inhibiting affects on students of my teaching, and led me towards writing about them. His actions were consistent with addressing injustices in teaching.

At the beginning, I didn't concur with or reject an emancipatory interest. It simply was not in my awareness. The process of realisation was as follows. Soon after the fieldwork (for the first phase) I produced a paper for a conference on modes of student participation in mathematics. I did not problematise to any great extent the classroom action that I described (Forster, 1999b). Then, I reconsidered the analysis and evidenced a slightly more critical attitude, to yield 'negative' critique (Forster, in press). By negative critique I mean identification of teaching actions which mediated against student participation. Later, I revised the piece and sliced through the teaching described in it, in a highly self-critical way, for inclusion in the thesis (Forster, 2001). I used categories of analysis from the literature that elucidated teacher control and concomitant distortions to student learning. Two other papers evolved the same way. The shift to be critical was disorientating, which is not uncommon with reflective practice studies (Carson, 1997) and can be seen as desirable, for improvements in teaching can follow.

The passage to enacting critique of teaching/learning in the other teacher's class, in the second phase of the study, which overlapped the first phase, was different. During the fieldwork period, I maintained ongoing discussion with him about the classroom activities and I intended this would contribute ontological authenticity for the study. In other words the discussion might expand and improve individual respondents' own 'emic constructions' (Guba & Lincoln, 1989). Furthermore, during the fieldwork period, we negotiated understanding on points of difference, for educative authenticity (Guba & Lincoln).

At the time, I felt our discussions were mutually educative. In retrospect, I saw them to be emancipatory in relation to the teacher, to the extent that I believed he gained greater awareness of some of his actions in the classroom and the possible positive and negative effects on students of them. For instance, we discussed his being non-inclusive of some students. My approach was to draw parallels with my own teaching and we discussed reasons for non-inclusiveness. My intention was not to impose my views or to claim superiority--attitudes that are easily read into the interaction between researchers and research-participants (Brickhouse, 1991).

Early papers written on the teaching/learning in the teacher's class comprised commentaries on students' mathematics conceptual development as evidenced in classroom conversation and action over one month (e.g., Forster, 2000b). Then, I moved to write about what I saw to be problematic aspects of the classroom practice but felt that I betrayed the teacher's trust of so halted the analysis. Brickhouse (1991) also identifies feelings of betrayal in the reporting phase.

The ethic of utilitarian good is relevant: "the primary utilitarian good is that which provides the greatest good for the largest number of people, and that good may be determined by risk-benefit analyses" (Brickhouse, 1992, p. 94). The dilemma is to judge the greatest good that can come from a research report. On one hand, not pursuing analysis is suppressing an account that could be informative for (unknown) others in their teaching. On the other hand, I was avoiding what I thought might result in hurt to the individual teacher whom I knew well: the personal affront on reading a piece and the damage that might ensue if his principal read the critique. Kelly (1989) writes that, for some, suppression of knowledge is unethical. For others, a caring attitude towards research participants and ensuring there is no damage to them are of prime importance (e.g., Noddings, 1984; Riddell, 1989).

Eventually, I developed a style of critique where I questioned from multiple perspectives the implications of various practices in the teacher's classroom; for instance, implications for student empowerment and disempowerment (Forster, 2000a). The perspectives were drawn from the literature and, in asking questions, I presumed I did not know the actual effects of classroom practices on students. I was influenced in the style by the notion of achieving a delicate balance between methodological caution and telling a 'story' that holds significance (Britzman, 1991). Methodological caution means carrying out criticism in ways that do not attempt to denigrate, or amount to denigrating insiders' actions. Caution is contingent on methodological humility, which means assuming, as an outsider, that you do not have full understanding of the research context.

When I felt that I could ask the teacher to read a research paper, this was a check that I had achieved an acceptable balance; and after he had read it, I checked that he did not object to publication. However, as with all research decisions, the style of analysis and the checking had ethical ramifications. In particular, a danger in trying to attend to the interests of all parties is that empirical research becomes restricted to "innocuous topics that challenge nobody" (Barnes, cited in Kelly 1989, p. 112).

So, in summary, my research purpose was to understand. It extended to educative relations with the teacher whose class I observed, and evolved to include critique, especially in the reporting stage. The ethical dilemmas that arose were mainly to do with reporting.

Informed consent

Having outlined my purpose and how it changed, I return to the beginning of the study and to the issue of informed consent. The idea of gaining informed consent is that research-participants and other stakeholders are informed about the research and understand what it involves. Then, they decide whether to take part. However, as Wax (cited in Howe & Moses, 1999) succinctly puts it, informed consent "is both too much and too little" (p. 41). If you tell too much you can predetermine the results. What you tell is always too little, for you cannot predict all the outcomes so cannot warn participants of them. A solution to 'telling too little' is to discuss eventualities on an ongoing basis with participants and renegotiate their consent (Brickhouse, 1991)-at the risk of confounding the problem of predetermining the results. Other potential outcomes of openness and negotiation are participants modify or reduce their participation (Punch, 1998) or become more circumspect (less honest) in their interactions (Kelly, 1989); so you risk losing access to what you are investigating.

My approach was to discuss the research with (a) the principal of the college that was the site for the study, (b) the teacher in the second phase and (c) students in both phases; and (d) I sent a letter to parents. I gave a document to all parties outlining the research and stated clearly in it that should they agree to the project, they could choose to withdraw at any time. I obtained written permission from the principal, teacher and parents, in particular for video-recording lessons, interviewing students individually and for completion of the questionnaires. The permission acknowledged the chance to withdraw. I anticipated a problem with the video recording but none eventuated. Students could have sat out of the field-of-view of the camera had they wished or had parental permission not been given. One family did not give permission for interviewing and I respected their wishes-such respect of explicit requests is fundamental to research (Howe & Moses, 1999). During the fieldwork, I discussed progress of the study with the teacher (in the second phase) and with students to a lesser extent (in both phases).

As (Kelly, 1989) found, the time and interest participants had for being informed about the study was limited! The principal did not seem particularly curious or concerned about my project, and had a busy schedule. No parents took up my invitation to contact me should they have any queries. The teacher always made time to discuss the teaching but his interest in my formalising (writing up) the research appeared marginal.

In both phases, class time was allocated to discussing the progress with students, but I wrote mostly about individuals well after the fieldwork and did not inform them of the analyses. There was the practical reason that they had left school by time the writing was completed, and also I felt they might be embarrassed by the detail. To compensate, I asked a critical friend (McNiff, 1995) and the teacher to be guardians of students' interests. I asked them specifically to check that my portrayal of students was fair, and I pursued fairness by not presuming intention in students' actions (e.g., Forster, 2000a). Despite these steps, the dilemma is my actions reflected lack of respect for the students, viz. lack of a relational ethic of care (Noddings, 1984).

Kelly (1989) also struggled with deciding the roles students should have in research. She asks: " Are they to be involved in the negotiations? Is this desirable? Is this practical" (p. 104). She did not include them as a matter of expediency in achieving her research intentions. However, emphases in postmodern scholarship are the development of empathic, non-exploitive, collaborative relationships (Lincoln & Denzin, 2000; Punch, 1998). These recommendations call for me to reconsider what is an appropriate research role for senior-secondary students in my future research.

Hence, in summary, dilemmas with 'informed consent' include the extent to which:

Anonymity and confidentiality

Protecting anonymity requires that the identities of individuals are not specified in the data that are gathered, and maintaining confidentiality requires that identity-specific data are not revealed (Howe & Moses, 1999). The dilemma with both anonymity and confidentiality is "key individuals will always be identifiable, at least to those within the case. This may be just as threatening or more . . . than being identifiable to those outside the case to whom the study might be disseminated" (Simons, 1989, p. 117).

Because I put in place audio and video-recording, anonymity was not feasible, which is typical of qualitative inquiry (Howe & Moses, 1999). I pursued confidentiality by always using pseudonyms in publications and presentations, not identifying the school, and I do not use photographs or video-clips. In addition, one reason that I took care to be fair in my representation of the students and the teacher (in the second phase) and was the possibility of identification by insiders.


Trust is central to the research enterprise (Howe & Moses, 1999) and for some, the development of trust in the research relationship, and genuine dialogue, become paramount concerns: a relational ethic is brought to bear. However, Punch (1998) writes that the reality of research can be assuming a role in order to gain access to information; then, manipulation; abandonment of the researched; and betrayal in the publications. I have already mentioned the latter. Conflict of interest is another salient issue (Burgess, 1989). It arises when established relationships become research relationships, which was the case with my students (in the first phase) and past colleague (in the second phase).

My research journal shows, in fact, that I recognised conflict of interest in my analysis of individual students' progress, which was encouraged by the (radical) constructivist principles that guided the interpretation, whereas my teaching obligations extended to the whole class. My response was to work at being inclusive in class and sometimes I put aside the research in order to concentrate solely on the teaching. The other side of the trust dilemma with existing relationships is possible convergence between existing interests and research interests. Thus, reflective teaching practice (self-study) with a research component can favourably mediate teaching and learning (e.g., Schön, 1987). Moreover, because of our existing relationship, I could broach topics in discussion with my colleague that I might not have been able to with teachers whom I did not know personally, for our mutual benefit.

Other matters of trust included that my intention was the research would not compromise students' mathematics program. In both phases of the study the normal (content-laden) teaching program was followed and no new topics were introduced. In addition, because of students' tendency to compare their progress with students in parallel classes, I sought and obtained the cooperation of the teachers of the other classes at the college following the same courses. The parallel classes generally used the same materials. Furthermore, for positive affect and ontological authenticity, I encouraged students to become more self-aware about how they learnt--through conversation with individual students during seatwork and through asking the students to monitor any shifts in their mathematics participation by completing questionnaires that I designed (Forster, 1999a). The questionnaires took into account characteristics of classroom interaction in the two settings, which I felt was preferable to imposing questions on students derived from other contexts. I discussed in class the potential benefits to students of increased self-awareness.

Key ethical issues are whether my research did in fact compromise students' progress and whether they benefited in any way. A small minority of students in my own class expressed dissatisfaction with the constructivist approaches that I introduced, and for one student the outcome was alienation and substantially lower performance in assessment (Forster, 2001). It seemed, though, that she responded positively after I discussed my rationale personally with her, which was in addition to the explanations I had given in class. It is relevant that Kimmel (1988) points to unintended adverse effects on participants being a serious ethical issue in research. In retrospect I could have been more explicit that I would cover the content but with different teaching approaches, which may have alleviated students' negativity.

In reflecting on the study, I questioned the data collection from students in my colleague's class. I video-recorded class activity in both phases of the study and, as well, in the second phase, I audio-recorded one-to-one conversations between some students, but not all of them. This last aspect comprises differential treatment (Kimmel, 1988), and students might have assumed the difference in treatment was linked to their ability. Any labelling students assume can be self-fulfilling: not being included in the audio recording might have mediated against students' confidence and learning. The dilemma is that to set up audio recording for all students, on top of setting up a video camera, is logistically challenging (as I found in a recent study).

Then, I used extensively the audio-recordings from two students but made only limited use of the recordings of five other students. My lack of attention to the data they provided could be deemed (a) disrespectful to them as people (i.e., deontological), (b) disempowering, because the knowledge produced is not something they can feel ownership of were they to read the thesis or published papers (i.e., not emancipatory), and (c) lacking in empathy (i.e., lacking a relational ethic) (Brickhouse, 1993). Thus, critical reflection on ethical issues at the conclusion of the study led me to question, more than during the study, the effects of the research on students.

Epistemology and ethics

I assumed a constructivist view of knowing and knowledge for the study. In fact, I adopted different constructivist viewpoints at different stages, for example, the emergent constructivist perspective (e.g., Cobb, Boufi, McClain & Whitenack, 1997) and ethnomethodological views (e.g., Livingston, 1987).

My approach was to work between the data that I generated (video-recordings, written work from students, etc.) and the literature. By this I mean that I wrote my initial impressions about excerpts of classroom conversation which caught my attention because they illustrated interesting or unusual aspects of teaching/learning. Then I modified and elaborated the analyses in light of the new understandings. Thus, I became more critical through reading the literature, and took care to reference my critique to the literature. The literature influenced in major ways my final portrayal of classroom events.

A problem with bringing theoretical views to a situation is they can over-determine what is seen (Brickhouse, 1993). As well, important aspects outside the adopted categories of analysis remain invisible. In fact, we are captured within our own perspectives, whether they a re naive or aligned with recognised theory. Thus, in research we must be critical of ourselves and our theories (Brickhouse, 1993; Punch, 1998). Steps that I took in this direction for my thesis were to include (a) an autobiographical note explaining the scope of my research in terms of my background, (b) an extensive review of the limitations of the theoretical views that underpinned my analysis and (c) critiques of my published papers that I imported into the thesis.

An aspect of research that I struggled with, and continue to confront, is making clear in my writing that I am expressing my point of view, my interpretation of events at the time of writing. An imperative to declare the personal status of analysis in my doctoral study was that, as discussed above, I dispensed with negotiating understanding with research participants after the fieldwork stage: I did not check with participants that I had constructed their lifeworlds as they experienced them. I relied instead on my perceptions of the text of classroom interaction: classroom conversation, board-work, students' written work and students' use of their graphics calculators.

The social analyses in which I engaged were permitted by the theoretical referents that I chose (e.g., Livingston, 1987). A key ethical issue, though, is whether or not I (you) can hide behind methodologies from the literature, in particular 'personal experience' methodologies, to justify research actions. For me, the question remains 'How ethical was it that the viewpoints or 'voices' of the research participants were not heard in the reports'? Fine (1998) points to this silencing the other as serious. She identifies that consequences are that the researcher inscribes the 'other'-others' viewpoints are not heard and contradictions are not explored.

I mention only two other aspects of my interpretative (constructivist) approach. I held to the recommendations that the process and the basis of interpretation be described in detail in the report, yielding thick description (Guba & Lincoln, 1989), where one purpose is readers can judge the relevance of the account for themselves. The second aspect is that selecting data exclusively to fit a conjecture, then trimming or manipulating data to make them look better, and fabricating data are not acceptable (Kimmel, 1988)! Never the less, data must be selected to substantiate an argument, in which case data selection processes need to be made explicit and disconfirming cases, that is negative cases, included (Guba & Lincoln, 1989), which are approaches that I took.

Political perils

The discussion above could be rephrased in terms of politics and power relations. For instance, I imposed the research on my class, which can be seen as an abuse of power as a teacher. Further, although students had the right not to comply with my research requests such as being interviewed, some might have felt unable to object because of the hierarchical teacher-student power relation. In regard to my colleague, we both exercised control and power in different ways and also negotiated control. For instance, he controlled the teaching agenda, we negotiated my attendance and role in the class, and I determined what I wrote about, without consulting him. Abuse of the exercise of power did not appear to me to be an issue for us.

The supervisor-student relation, the authority of the literature and the authority of editorial boards of scholarly journals are other sites of power that need to be negotiated. The imperative to respond to pressures from the different sources if one wants to qualify for membership of research and university communities means personal viewpoints can become submerged, but naïve viewpoints become more sophisticated. I realised that my research identity was being formed by my responses to advice so that I needed to justify compliance on grounds of belief and not expediency or, otherwise, justify holding to personal viewpoints. In fact, the justification is encouraged in the journal review process.

Moreover, institutionalised rewards favour publication in refereed journals and conference proceedings, which raises the question of whom is research for? Is it intended that research will serve academic audiences first and that teachers and students are secondary considerations? In the event, my study entailed a high degree of self-interest and possibly some direct, although marginal, benefits to research participants. In addition, I was active in securing publication in teaching and research journals (8 and 4 papers respectively), presenting at teaching and research conferences (5 and 7 presentations respectively), and conducting professional development for teachers (7 presentations). I felt the activities directed at teaching as well as research audiences lent justification for the three-year study.


My initial purpose in my doctoral study was to understand teaching and learning. The research act evolved to be more emancipatory so that I critiqued teacher control and its inhibiting effects on students. Being critical of my own teaching was disorientating but the move has served well my post-doctoral research and ongoing teaching in the tertiary sector. I understand the complexity of teaching more than I otherwise would have.

A contingency of a critique in the second phase was feeling that I betrayed the teacher and students in the reporting. My solution was a genre where I questioned the effects of classroom practice on students, which possibly transcended the harshness of judgement. I continue to pursue the style which has attracted favourable comments on methodological grounds because it challenges positivist assumptions (e.g., Forster, Taylor & Davis, 2002).

Moreover, reading prior to the study and critical reflection at its conclusion led me to frame my research decisions in terms of ethical stances in the literature. Controversially, I put in place consultation with research participants during the fieldwork stage but discontinued consultation in the reporting, so did not give voice to the participants. In some instances my actions were aligned with an ethic of care but other actions were antithetical to care. The reader might expect that, having recognised these and other dilemmas, I would have developed a personal scheme of ethics to which I categorically adhere. My view, however, is that classroom-based inquiry calls for value judgements that take into account the unique aspects of relations with research participants and the researcher's relationship to a project, which is the view of Constas (1998) and Punch (1998) for research in the postmodern era. Albeit, to me, a key to making sound value judgements is increased awareness of the ethical dimensions of research brought about by critical reflection on past endeavours.


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Author: Dr Patricia Forster
Institute for the Service Professions
Edith Cowan University
2 Bradford St, Mount Lawley, Western Australia 6050
Email: forster@iinet.net.au

Please cite as: Forster, P. A. (2003). Ethical pitfalls and political perils of classroom-based research. Issues In Educational Research, 13(1), 53-65. http://www.iier.org.au/iier13/forster.html

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